Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

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Frank Sando

10th August 2011

Profile: Frank Sando1931-2012  In the 1950s Frank Sando was the premier cross-country runner in the world. No other runner came close to his record in the International Cross-Country Championships (the forerunner of the World Championships). Between 1952 and 1960, this English runner from Kent finished six times in the top three, winning twice. On the three occasions he wasn’t on the podium, he was ninth, fourth and eighth. But this remarkable and consistent record is not the full story of Frank Sando’s running career, for he was also successful on the track with two Empire medals and one European. Furthermore, he had a fifth place finish in the 1952 Olympic 10,000 final. And it is worth remembering that he was able to run at world level for nine years while holding down a full-time office job.

Franz Stampfl

18th February 2011

1913-1995 Austrian-born Franz Stampfl was one of the leading coaches of the 1950s and 1960s. He developed his own interval-training system from Gerschler’s pioneering work. Stampfl’s system was used effectively by Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher in England, and later by Merv Lincoln and Ralph Doubell in Australia. Stampfl was an intellectual. Coaching for him was not merely training the body. He put equal emphasis on the mind, not only with psychological development but also  intellectual development. Chris Chataway said, “When I first met him I realized he had a remarkable understanding of human nature and a devastatingly infectious enthusiasm.” (O’Connor, Sports Illustrated, Nov. 26, 1956) According to Brian Hewson, Stampfl “not only made sure his athletes were physically fit, he made sure they were mentally fit as well.” (Flying Feet, p.61)  This is where he differed from most coaches. If coaching can be defined as a blend of art and science, Stampfl put much more emphasis on the art than most coaches. This involved spending long hours in conversation with his main athletes. “We would go down to lunch on Lygon Street,” Ralph Doubell recalled. “We’d be first there at lunch, be last to leave. Then we’d go from there to Jimmy Watson’s wine bar. So between 12 and 4 I had an earful of Stampfl, but by the end of it I could normally believe that I could beat anybody in the world.” (Amanda Smith, The Sports Factor, Jan. 2001)

Gaston Roelants

25th February 2013

b. February 5, 1937 1.74/5’8  67kg/147lbs Very few runners have achieved as much success as Gaston Roelants. For 15 years, from 1960 (4th in the Olympics) to 1974 (3rd in the Europeans), this Belgian athlete was at the very top of his sport. And amazingly he excelled in five different areas of running: he was the 1964 Olympic gold medalist and WR holder in the steeplechase; he was a four-time winner of the International Cross-Country Championships; he was European silver and bronze medalist in the Marathon; he ranked consistently high in world rankings for the 5,000 (twice in the top six) and 10,000 (five times in the top six); and finally he set four WRs for long-distance track races (One Hour and 20K).

American middle-distance runner George Young will be remembered most of all for establishing American steeplechasing on the international map, for solidifying the 1952 gold-medal achievement of Horace Ashenfelter. Young placed fifth and third in the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Steeplechase finals and set an American record of 8:30.4. He will also be remembered for his competitive toughness. This toughness was perfectly exemplified near the end of his career (at  age 36) when he had an memorable battle with 21-year-old Prefontaine in the 1972 USA Olympic Trials 5,000. Young’s ongoing reputation as a tough guy was brilliantly captured in the Prefontaine movie Without Limits. In a memorable scene (, Donald Sutherland, playing Coach Bill Bowerman, visits Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) to announce with great gravity: “George Young is in town.” This echoes a classic line in many western movies when locals learn that a famous gunfighter has arrived in town. George Young was indeed a “famous gunfighter” on the American track scene in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Few runners have appeared on the distance-running scene as dramatically as American Gerry Lindgren. In 1964 while still a schoolboy, he emerged from a remote area of Washington State near the Canadian border to run a series of world-class races. His successes that year took him to the Tokyo Olympics as one of the favorites in the 10,000. Until the 1960s teenagers rarely competed in distance events. It was universally believed that distance running was a mature man’s sport; teenagers were strongly discouraged from running long distances on the road and track. Only in cross-country races were they allowed to run longer distances up to 5,000.

Glenn Cunningham

6th January 2014

Glenn Cunningham Profile1909-1988  The life of 1930’s American miler Glen Cunningham has now become part of American folklore. It is the story of a young Kansas boy of pioneer farming stock who faced adversity with courage and determination to become a world-famous hero. This story, as it grew into folklore over many printed versions, has often been embellished with fictional details. However, the actual facts are powerful enough. When just seven years old, Glenn Cunningham was badly injured by a woodstove explosion that killed his brother. He spent over a year recuperating upstairs in his parent’s home before he was able to venture outdoors. His legs were so badly burned that it took him more than six months to stand, yet alone move. Yet through determination and self-discipline he learned to walk and then to run, eventually becoming a world-class runner.

Gordon Pirie

17th February 2011

GORDON PIRIE PROFILE1931-1991 Gordon Pirie’s serious running career began when, as a 17-year-old, he witnessed Zatopek’s 1948 Olympic performances:  “My imagination was set on fire and my consuming ambition was born. I instantly recognized him as the embodiment of an ideal for myself as he scorched through the 10,000 field. From that day he has never ceased to be my greatest inspiration and challenge and my firm friend.” (Pirie, Running Wild, p.16) Not endowed with great natural ability, Pirie achieved success through following Zatopek’s example:  “He burst through a mental and physical barrier. He showed runners that what they had been content with up to then was nothing to what could be achieved.” (RW, p.16)

Gunder Hägg Profile 1918-2004 This great Swedish runner set fifteen WRs between 1941 and 1945. He improved the Mile WR by 5.0 seconds, the 1,500 WR by 4.8 seconds, the 3,000 WR by 7.8 seconds and the 5,000 WR by 10.6 seconds. As well as a record-breaker, Gunder Hägg was also a fierce competitor; his tactic of burning off all competition from the front worked almost perfectly until his penultimate competitive year (1944), when his great rival Arne Andersson beat him in five out of six races. Had not World War Two prevented Olympic and European Championships during his career, Hägg would surely have won several medals. After years of heavy physical work and then a consistent winter conditioning schedule of running and cross-country skiing, he developed into an almost perfect runner. A Times reporter noted  “the smooth beauty of [his] stride which was mechanical only in the sense that perfect motion is mechanical.” (Aug.7, 1945)

Gunder Hagg’s Training  (Much of the material for this article comes from Gunder Hägg's Dagbok, which was published in Stockholm by Tidens Förlag in 1952. I have also used an article, "Kanske Bättre Kondition än Någon Nånsin" written by Hagg for a handbook entitled Vålådalen published in 1953 by Åhlén and Åkerlunds Förlags AB.) Over a period of five years in the 1940s, while most of the world was at war, Gunder Hägg was rewriting the middle-distance record book in neutral Sweden. Many of these records were set in competition with his great rival Arne Andersson, and there is no doubt that this competition pushed Hägg to faster times. He was a great competitor who always came through in the big races. But fierce competition doesn’t fully explain his remarkable success on the cinder track. Also crucial were his early childhood conditioning and his innovative training methods.

Harald Norpoth

8th July 2012

Profile:  Harald Norpoth  b. 1942 BeginningsBetween 1964 and 1973, Harald Norpoth was a dominant force in international middle-distance running. Combining stamina with a punishing finishing kick, he won more than three-quarters of his outdoor track races. Although he never won a major championship, he was universally respected as a 1,500/5,000 runner. A three-time Olympian, his best performance was 2nd in the Tokyo 5,000 in 1964. However, he also ran extremely well in the Mexico 1,500 (fourth) and the Munich 5,000 (sixth). On the European scene, he won gold medals in three consecutive European Cups and in the European Championships he won one silver and two bronze medals. Although more of a racer than a record-beater-- "I was more the competitive type”--he did set a WR for 2,000 (4:57.8) and European records for 5,000 (13:24.8) and 3,000 (7:45.2). Norpoth once received a telling compliment from another great competitor of his era, Ian Stewart: “I respect him even more than Ron Clarke. Some think Clarke’s the be all and end all of running. He’s bloody good. But as a racer I’ve got to go for someone like Norpoth.” (The Times, Oct 24, 1969)